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Into the Wild Blue and White Yonder: Penn State Law and the JAG Corps

“Penn State Law is an incredible school and our students find success in all areas of legal practice, but if you’re thinking about coming to law school and joining the JAG Corps, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place."
Ben Haight, Penn State Law alumni and lieutenant in the Navy JAG Corps

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- There are any number of career paths that can follow law school.

Some students go into criminal defense or prosecution. Others pursue civil litigation, or find careers where the law intersects with business and industry. Others still want to use their legal training to serve their country, and Penn State Law is uniquely equipped to help those students excel in careers in the U.S. military’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

James W. Houck, former interim dean and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Penn State Law, is a retired three-star admiral, and knows better than most what it takes to succeed in these unique and exciting careers having spent a decorated Naval career in the JAG Corps, which culminated in his service as the 41st judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy.

“For me, I saw a chance to connect the law directly to service of our country; I was able to be a lawyer and wear the uniform of the United States,” Houck said. “Now I keep an eye out to help students who are interested in following that path. Sometimes they approach me, but sometimes I see it in them.”

Never a Dull Moment

SaraAnn Bennett, a 2014 graduate of Penn State Law and lieutenant in the U.S. Navy JAG Corps, never thought of herself as someone cut out for the military. But Houck saw in her the kind of talent, passion, and desire to serve something greater than herself that made him think Bennett would excel as a military attorney. While she did have an interest in using her law degree to serve others, Bennett didn’t know if the Navy was the place for her—until Houck helped arrange for her to shadow current members of the JAG Corps, where she said she’d “never met so many attorneys who loved their jobs.”

“When he said he thought I’d be a great fit in the JAG Corps, I didn’t really know what he meant at the time, but I see it now. I’m lucky enough to be a part of a team that works together to achieve a common goal, and I get to see the world and serve my country with them,” Bennett said. “Professor Houck really was the best person I could’ve asked for to mentor and introduce me to the idea of serving in the JAG Corps.”

Admiral Houck performs SaraAnn Bennett's September 2016 promotion ceremony from lieutenant junior grade to lieutenant

Ben Haight, a classmate of Bennett’s who is now also a lieutenant and Navy JAG, had a slightly different experience. He knew early on that he wanted to pursue a career in the Navy JAG Corps, and approached Houck for guidance on making that dream a reality. Although the application process for becoming a JAG can be lengthy and complex, Haight said that Houck's guidance was invaluable.

“Bottom line, Admiral Houck was the one who made my decision to pursue the Navy JAGC an easy one,” Haight said. “He is an incredible asset for Penn State Law and there is no doubt that I would not be where I am today without his mentorship. I know he was an extremely busy man in his role as dean, but Admiral Houck still managed to find time to stay in contact and motivate me.”

Now, three years out of law school, both Bennett and Haight are enjoying incredibly varied and exciting careers in the Navy JAG Corps. As a first-tour judge advocate, Bennett has done everything from prosecuting violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to serving as a deputy JAG for the admiral of a strike group, while Haight is currently deployed as the staff judge advocate for the commander of an amphibious squadron with more than 4,000 sailors and Marines."

“In a single day, it would not be unusual for me to brief pilots and Marines on the rules of engagement, advise the ship commanding officer on navigational laws, and work closely with [the Naval Criminal Investigative Service] on an investigation,” Haight said. “There is never a dull moment and there is no such thing as a typical day.” 

Ready to Get to Work

But it’s not just alumni who have found their calling in the JAG Corps—the connection between Penn State Law and the JAG Corps across military branches only continues to grow as more students discover their passion for using their legal education to serve their country.

“From my perspective, what’s happening here—in terms of the interest among our students in the JAG Corps, having so many alumni who have made that transition from law school to JAG attorneys, and having Admiral Houck available as a resource—is a rare thing,” said Randy Reliford, Penn State Law director of career services. “But, in a way, it makes sense. I think the type of person that comes to Penn State, and the values of our University and this law school, reflect a belief in service to our community, to our country, and to our world.”

For Kevin Schrop, second-year student and former history teacher pursuing a career in the Air Force JAG Corps, this path gives him the opportunity to explore emerging fields of law like cyberwarfare and space law while working to make a positive difference in the world. With guidance from Houck, and from the Penn State Air Force ROTC Program, Schrop has been accepted into a one-year program for current law students with the Air Force ROTC Program as the first step on his career path.

“Waking up at 4:45 in the morning to get to physical training, maybe I question some of my decisions,” Schrop joked, “but it really is more than worth it in the end. I’ve lived in this country and benefitted from its freedom and privileges, and now this is my chance to give back and achieve my own personal career goals.”

Penn State Law student Dan Sawey recites the United States Uniformed Service Oath of Office as he commissions in the U.S. Navy.

Dan Sawey, a fellow second-year student who recently obtained his commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy as part of its JAG program, had an early interest in military service piqued by stories of his grandfather’s service in World War II. By the time he had set his mind to pursuing a career in the JAG Corps, he’d had the chance to talk to Houck and knew that Penn State Law was the place where he could make his dream a reality.

“To receive my commission and have the chance to raise my right hand and recite the oath that Admiral Houck was leading me through was a great honor, almost indescribable,” Sawey said. “Seeing all those years of work and blood, sweat, and tears, doing all the right things and staying on that straight and narrow finally come to fruition was an amazing feeling.”

Chris Dempsey, who just graduated as part of the class of 2017, has been working toward his goal of joining the Navy JAG Corps throughout his years at Penn State Law. Having grown up in Annapolis, Maryland, near the United States Naval Academy, he’d always known friends in the service, and knew he either wanted to go to law school or become a commissioned officer in the Navy—but after coming to Penn State Law and learning more about the JAG Corps, he realized he could accomplish both and find a fulfilling, global career in the process.

“At the time, I didn’t really know that much about the JAG Corps, but Admiral Houck really inspired me to learn more, and shared with me his own experiences,” said Dempsey, who now has to take the bar exam and then attend officer development school. “I’m so excited; I can’t wait. I know that this is the place for me, and I’m so grateful for the guidance and support that have helped me get here—now I’m just ready to start this job!”

Chris Dempsey performs his commissioning ceremony led by Admiral Houck.

A Family Tradition

Houck notes the importance others play in helping Penn State Law students apply to and join the JAG Corps. Students also find guidance from Russell Shaffer, assistant dean for operations and planning, and Jeff Horwitz, director of development and alumni relations, both of whom are former captains in Navy who have also gone on to serve on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee professional staff and in the White House Military Office, respectively.

But the most important factor that has helped so many Penn State Law students find success is the hard work, dedication, and passion for service of the students themselves. Faculty and staff may help guide them, but it’s the students who earn their success through their academic and professional excellence.

“I’m honored to be able to help our students achieve their goals, and helping students who want to join the JAG Corps is something that’s close to my heart,” Houck said. “Penn State Law is an incredible school and our students find success in all areas of legal practice, but if you’re thinking about coming to law school and joining the JAG Corps, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place. With the people we have here, I doubt there’s a law school in the country better suited to help law students take their first steps toward serving their country.”

For Dempsey, the connection he feels to both Penn State and the Navy is like being a part of a big family—and just like every family, it’s one that comes with its own traditions.

“When you get your uniform, you get a rank stripe on your shoulder for being an ensign. When SaraAnn got promoted, she passed her insignia on to another Penn State Law alumna who’s now passing that along to me,” Dempsey said. “I look forward to the day when I can do the same.” 

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